Oilprint - Long long ago in Wdzydze

Alternative mythology

Each time I have an opportunity to discuss historical or alternative photographic processes with people who haven’t started working with them yet, I realise how many myths have arisen around them. Myths relating to the cost, methods and conditions of work, level of difficulty and finally, the appearance of the resulting images. Below, I will try to address at least some of them.

Gum bichromate on Fabriano paper. Size of the original: 26x39cm. Photo by Radosław Brzozowski

Gum bichromate on Fabriano paper. Size of the original: 26x39cm. Photo by Radosław Brzozowski

I. Historical processes are costly

Like with most other myths, there is a grain of truth here. The problem is, that it is only a very small grain. It is true, that some techniques, such as the platinum print, require expensive chemicals and involve some initial investment before you start work. It is also true, that some techniques, such as the wetplate, require special equipment such as a view camera. Only that this equipment needs not be expensive at all.

In most cases, the truth is radically different and historical processes not only are not more expensive than modern digital photogaphy, but often are actually cheaper. Let us consider:

a. in most cases, paper on which we make our prints is the most expensive element and the cost of other ingredients is marginal, not to say negligible. The cost of the paper will range from maybe 20-30 eurocents for an A4 sheet of cheap watercolour paper to a few euros for the most expensive papers of the highest quality, which are only justifiable if you are making prints intended to be fully archival. Needless to say, even cheap paper will outlive most digital prints.With most techniques, the cost of chemicals will not exceede 20 eurocents per 8×10 inch print.

For the sake of comparison a photographic print from a digital file of a comparable size can cost as much as 3 euros and an archival print will be much more expensive. In this way the cost will be higher than even a platinum print.

b. most historical processes don’t require special cameras or almost any professional, dedicated equipment. We can print digital negatives using an office grade injet printer on a simple transparency (depending on its quality the cost will range from pennies to maybe 2 euros per sheet). What is more, there is no reason not to use third party inks; after all a slight shift in the colour of the negative won’t really matter that much.

Even if we need a view camera, as is the case with wetplate photography, it will often be cheaper that even the cheapest digital SLR. You can buy a decent 13x18cm (5x7inch) field camera with a lense and a film holder for around two hundred euros.

Of course, there will be situations which require costly equipment, but this is usually the case when we want to shoot extra large formats; while an 8×10 inch camera can be had for something like 300 euros, a 12×20 inch one will set you back a couple thousand.

But then, I know dozens of photographers who go round with bags containing equipment worth more than five or ten thousand euros. This kind of money is enough not only to buy all the equipment you need but also to support your passion for alternative photography for years. Somehow, they don’t begrudge the money spent.

Oilprint on Fabriano paper. Size of the original: 26x39cm. Photo by Radosław Brzozowski

Oilprint on Fabriano paper. Size of the original: 26x39cm. Photo by Radosław Brzozowski

Historical processes require an elaborate lab/darkroom

The situaltion is quite similar here. There are techniques which will require a considerable investment in setting up a darkroom or even buying laboratory grade equipment. I wouldn’t recommend, for example, shooting daguerreotypes without equipment that will guarantee safety or, for instance, working with emulsions without your own darkroom and at least some laboratory equipment, even if it is very basic. With most techniques, however, complete and functional equipment can be had for less than 100 euros and any room, even a bathroom, can provide an adequate working space. All the equipment you need to start working with cyanotype, albumen print, gumprint, oilprint, saltprint or even platinum print (to mention just a few) will fit in a regular bathroom cabinet.

Historical techniques require years of study and deep chemical knowledge

Everything depends on the technique. Simple iron based techniques, such as the cyanotype, require nothing more than reading carefully the instructions that come with the chemistry. It surely won’t be sufficient to learn all the secrets of the process, but will be enough to start getting decent results. Other techniques maybe more complicated, often much more complicated. Becaming a master (or at least advanced user) of any single technique does indeed require a considerable amount of practice. But then, learning to use all the functions of a digital camera won’t necessarily be much easier. Sure, it can be used in the ‘green’ mode, but learning to control all its functions takes a lot of time (which can be seen during any workshop for beginners). A similar amount of time will be sufficient to get a grasp of even a very complex historical process. It will not be enough to fully master all its intricacies, but then learning to control your slr won’t make you a master user of the digital photographic equipment either. Mastering the software alone will take months if not years.

The image created using historical processes lacks quality

This one is simply rubbish. In most cases the ‘inferior’ quality results from such obvious reasons as lack of skills, poor quality of materials used or simply a poor quality of the scan posted on the web (only too many people judge the quality of images without having seen a single print). There are also cases where the ‘less than perfect’ image quality results from a conscious decision on the part of the photographer as may be the case with, for example, gumprinting, where literally any kind of results can be achieved; from fantastic, rich colour and excellent detail to pictures showing almost no detail or contrast, not to mention them being monochromatic.

Usually it is enough to realize, that most famous photographs from the 19th century, as well as those coming from the early 20th century were made with techniques we now consider to be historical, to realize that the image quality needs not be poor. It is enough to think about the work od Stiglitz, Steichen, Atget or the excellent platinum prints of Penn to realize how unjust this opinion is.

Historical photographic methods are dangerous to your health

Once more, the truth of this statement will depend on the technique. For example, cyanotype is not much worse than household bleech (despite the dangerous sounding name). With exception of blatant carelessness (not to say stupidity) such as eating or drinking chemicals, rubbing them into your eyes and the like, albumen print or saltprint can, at worse, stain your clothes, skin and working space. Other techniques, such as the wetplate collodion or gum bichromate do indeed involve dangerous chemicals and require more care than, for example digital photography. Still, in most cases precautions such as proper gloves, laboratory apron or, in extreme cases, mask, will be sufficient.

Historical techniques are time consuming

And once more this is true in some cases, and wrong in others. If you take, for instance, gum bichromate, it is indeed time consuming, even in its simplest, one layer vervion, not to mention full colour gumprinting. On the other hand, there are many techniques that really require very little time. Take for instance the albumen print that has recently joined the list of my favourites. If I have a photographic session on a Sunday morning, using my view camera and X-ray film, I will have the exhibition quality prints ready the same day in the evening; say four of them (I don’t use more pictures from one shoot anyway). So, hands up. How many of you will finish a digital shoot at 1 p.m. and have exhibition quality prints ready at seven p.m.? Or even finished, well edited digital pictures. And this time is sufficient not only to make prints, but also to develop the negatives.

Alternative photographic processes are dangerous to the environemnt.

I am actually adding this as a responce to a comment received. This one is, like all others, partly true, mostly not. First of all, there are techniques that involve no chemicals harmful to the environment; eggs, silver nitrate, kitchen salt, thiosulphate (essetially a fertilizer) and so on. Even in wetplate photography there are recipes that will not use harmful chemicals. Then, there is the question of scale; Cadmium is truly a menace, but then, a wetplater won’t use more than is contained in a NiCad cell readily available in any supermarket. What we use is grams, grams per months, not kilograms or tons like the industry does so the potential for harming the environment is, truly negligible. And all this assuming the photographer does not recycle, which is not the case with most of us.

Of course, these are just some of the myths that surround historical processes and I am sure many more can be found. Still, I hope this short article will bust at least a few most common ones and encourage those, who had initially believed them to give alternative photography a try.